Sunday, January 25, 2009

Small Farms Win

We have two primary needs in agriculture right now. We need higher yields and we need more small farms. We need higher yields because the human population is growing and land is limited. We need more farmers for a lot of reasons. In fact our need for more small farms exceeds our need for higher yields.

Arguing for higher yields seems like more of the same. In the last century, science and technology have provided us with truly unbelievable yields thanks to synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms. It’s tempting to assume that our future demands will be fairly easy to meet in the same way.

But this is misleading. Fertilizers are only capable of doing so much. We reached a point some time ago where adding more nutrients to our soils wouldn’t increase yields. In many cases, in excess, it even reduces them. Pesticides (both synthetic and natural ones) are still being discovered but the cost of developing them is becoming greater and greater at the same time that regulatory agencies are demanding fewer and fewer broad-spectrum products. This means that companies are being forced to make more effective and safer products on smaller and smaller margins. This trend obviously can’t last forever.

Genetically modified crops have significantly increased yields in the last couple of decades but farmers have not benefited from this as much as basic manufacturers have. To make matters worse, our dependence on fewer and fewer crop varieties is making us more and more vulnerable to disease and pest outbreaks on a global level. The local storerooms of seed varieties that farmers could chose from and manage themselves are becoming fewer and fewer. We are approaching a time when our agricultural apathy will come back to haunt us.

This is, of course, the reason that we need more small farms. John Taylor of Caroline noticed more than two centuries ago that small farms produced more than big farms do - at least proportionately. Taylor was a Virginia farmer from the same tradition as Thomas Jefferson and grasped a basic truth that we moderns have a hard time appreciating: that there is an important difference between productivity and yield.

It’s obvious that an industrial farmer with his tractors can plow and plant more acreage than a man on a small farm. On a man-hour basis it would then seem obvious that mechanization is more practical and profitable. And indeed, this is true if we measure yield only relative to man-hours. If we start from a land ethic, however, and calculate yield relative to farm size, things change. Industrial farming no longer wins hands-down.

The reasons are straight-forward. An owner of a small farm often has a family - call them part-time field hands if you like. Together they know what’s happening on the farm. If disease or insects start to threaten part of the field, local action can be taken to keep problems from getting out of hand. Losing a few plants or part of a crop is often much less expensive than making multiple spray applications over multiple acres. Large farms rarely monitor their crops as well as small farms do.

Harvests can be customized on small farms too. Normal plants will usually be productive over a period of days, weeks, or even months. Small farms are able to take advantage of this. It isn’t cost effective for an industrial farmer to start up the combine or hire seasonal help to harvest large tracts of produce multiple times. On small farms, this is not a problem and multiple harvests are the rule – providing less waste and generally fresher produce. In many cases multiple harvests promote greater yields as well.

Another problem of calculating productivity on a man-hour basis is that it fails to consider external costs. When these costs are taken into account, they almost always favor small farms (see the USDA’s 1998 report, Time to Act, for more information on this).

Small farms harbor greater diversity in a number of ways. For instance, citizens of small farm communities come from a wider variety of cultures than other farm communities. Cropping systems are more diverse too and this diversity lends stability to changing circumstances. Small farms have greater biological diversity - both of natural enemies of pests and to wildlife. There is also a greater variety of landscapes and cultural traditions on small farms.

Small farms also have a better track record with the environment. They conserve soil and water quite a bit better than large farms. And this happens in a free enterprise system. In fact small farms are a very important part of the economy in many places.

Small farms are also places for families to raise children and acquire values. They are places to learn about the Law of the Harvest (q.v.) and to become practical and self-reliant. These are all things that are certainly worthy of note, even if they don’t factor into spreadsheets about yield.

Of course it doesn’t make sense to lose sight of the need to feed a growing population - both at home and abroad. We clearly do need greater yields in many parts of the world. But we also have the choice about how this can be done. We can leave the task to industrial farmers alone and continue our estrangement from the land, from our faith, and from each other; or, we can regain our culture, heal ourselves and our communities, and grow a little wiser in the process.

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